A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (novel)

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
TreeGrowsInBrooklyn.jpg
First edition
Author Betty Smith
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Harper & Brothers
Publication date
1943
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages 443 p.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a 1943 novel written by Betty Smith. The story focuses on an impoverished but aspirational third-generation-American adolescent girl and her ethnically-blended family in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City during the first two decades of the 20th century. The book was an immense success.

The main metaphor of the book is the hardy Tree of Heaven, native to China and Taiwan, now considered invasive, and common in the vacant lots of New York City.

Plot[edit]

The novel is split into five "books," each covering a different period in the characters' lives. Book One opens in 1912 and introduces 11-year-old Francie Nolan, who lives in the Williamsburg tenement neighborhood of Brooklyn with her 10-year-old brother Cornelius ("Neeley" for short) and their parents, Johnny and Katie. Francie relies on her imagination and her love of reading to provide a temporary escape from the poverty that defines her daily existence. The family subsists on Katie's wages from cleaning apartment buildings, pennies from the children's junk-selling and odd jobs, and Johnny's irregular earnings as a singing waiter. His alcoholism has made it difficult for him to hold a steady job, and he sees himself as a disappointment to his family as a result. Francie admires him because he is handsome, talented, emotional and sentimental, like her. Francie's mother, Katie, has very little time for sentiment, since she is the breadwinner of the family who has forsaken fantasies and dreams for survival.

Book Two jumps back to 1900, with the meeting of Johnny and Katie, the teenage children of immigrants from Ireland and Austria, respectively. Although Johnny panics when Katie becomes pregnant with first Francie and then Neeley, and begins drinking heavily, Katie resolves to give her children a better life than she has known, which her mother, Mary, embodies in the word and idea, "education." Kate also resents baby Francie because she is constantly ill, while Neeley is more robust. Kate makes a promise to herself that her daughter must never learn of her preference for Neeley. During the first seven years of their marriage, the Nolans are forced to move twice within Williamsburg, due to public disgrace brought about first by Johnny's drunkenness and subsequent delirium tremens on his "voting birthday" and then by the children's Aunt Sissy's misguided efforts at babysitting them, both of which set neighbors' tongues to talking. They arrive at the apartment introduced in Book One.

In Book Three, the Nolans settle into their new home and the children (now seven and six) begin to attend the squalid, overcrowded public school next door. Francie enjoys learning even in these dismal surroundings, and with her father's support, she gets herself transferred to a better school in a different neighborhood. Johnny's attempts to improve the children's minds fail, but Katie helps Francie grow as a person and saves her life by shooting a child-rapist/murderer who tries to attack her daughter shortly before she turns 14. When Johnny learns that Katie is pregnant once again, he falls into a depression that leads to his death from alcoholism-induced pneumonia on Christmas Day 1915. Money from the family's life insurance policies and the children's after-school jobs keeps the Nolans afloat in 1916 until the new baby, Annie Laurie (named after a favorite song of Johnny's), is born in May and Francie graduates from grade school in June. Graduation allows her to finally come to terms with the reality of her father’s death.

At the start of Book Four, Francie and Neeley take jobs since there is no money to send them to high school. Francie works first in an artificial-flower factory, then in a press clipping office. Although she wants to use her salary to start high school in the fall, Katie decides to send Neeley instead, reasoning that he will only continue learning if he is forced into it while Francie will find a way to do it on her own. Once the United States enters World War I in 1917, the clipping office rapidly declines and closes, leaving Francie out of a job. After she finds work as a teletype operator, she makes a new plan for her education, choosing to skip high school and take summer college-level courses. She passes with the help of Ben Blake, a friendly and determined high school student, but fails the college's entrance exams. A brief encounter with Lee Rhynor, a soldier about to ship out to France, leads to heartbreak after he pretends to be in love with Francie when he is in fact about to get married. In 1918, Katie accepts a marriage proposal from Michael McShane, a pipe-smoking retired police officer who has long admired Katie, and has meanwhile become a wealthy businessman and politician.

As Book Five begins in the fall of this same year, Francie, now almost 17, quits her teletype job. She is about to start classes at the University of Michigan, having passed the entrance exams with Ben's help, and is considering the possibility of a future relationship with him. The Nolans prepare for Katie's wedding and the move from their Brooklyn apartment to McShane's home, and Francie pays one last visit to some of her favorite childhood places and reflects on all the people who have come and gone in her life. She is struck by how much of Johnny's character lives on in Neeley, who has become a talented jazz/ragtime piano player. Before she leaves the apartment, she notices the Tree of Heaven that has grown and re-sprouted in the building's yard despite all efforts to destroy it, seeing in it a metaphor for her family's ability to overcome adversity and thrive. In the habits of a neighborhood girl, Florrie, she sees a version of her young self, sitting on the fire escape with a book and watching the young ladies of the neighborhood prepare for their dates. Francie says, "Hello, Francie" to Florrie, and then, "Goodbye, Francie" softly, as she closes the window.

Character List[edit]

Mary Frances "Francie" Nolan is the protagonist. The novel begins when Francie is 11 years old. The rest of the novel tells of Francie's life until she goes to college at 17. Francie grows up in Brooklyn in the early twentieth century; her family is in constant poverty throughout most of the novel. Francie shares a great admiration for her father, Johnny Nolan, and wishes for an improved relationship with her mother, hardworking Katie Nolan, recognizing similar traits in her mother and herself that she believes are a barrier to true understanding. The story of Francie traces her individual desires, affections, and hostilities while growing up in an aggressive, individualistic, romantic, and ethnic family and neighborhood; more universally it represents the hopes of immigrants in the early twentieth century to rise above poverty through their children, whom they hope will receive "education" and take their place among true Americans. Francie is symbolized by the "Tree of Heaven" that flourishes under the most unlikely urban circumstances.

Katie Rommely- Nolan is Francie's mother and the youngest of her parents' four daughters. She is a second-generation immigrant with an evil father and an angelic mother who emigrated from Austria. She married Johnny Nolan when she was only 17 years old. Katie is a hardworking, practical woman whose youthful romanticism has been replaced by a frigid realism that often prevents her from sympathizing with those who love her most. She runs her home in such a way that her children are able to enjoy their childhood despite their extreme poverty. Because Johnny is an alcoholic and can rarely hold down a job, Katie becomes the family breadwinner by cleaning apartment buildings. Johnny, however, is more attuned to Francie's hopes of graduating from high school and becoming a writer. As Francie matures and develops an inclination toward academia, Katie realizes she is more devoted to Neeley than to Francie. Katie becomes pregnant just before Johnny dies and survives on her own until she agrees to marry Sergeant Michael McShane, a pipe-smoking local policeman-turned-politician.

Sissy Rommely is Katie's oldest sister and one of Francie's three aunts. Because of her parents' immigration and lack of knowledge in their new environment, Sissy never goes to school and is therefore illiterate. Sissy is kind, compassionate and beautiful, and many men fall in love with her. She is first married at 14, but after being unable to have any live children with her husband, Sissy leaves him. She marries two more times without ever getting a divorce. In between marriages, Sissy has a number of lovers. She calls each of her husbands and lovers by the name "John" until her final husband, who insists that she properly divorce her second husband and demands to be called by his own name, Steve. Sissy has ten stillborn children, but adopts an immigrant girl's baby daughter born out of wedlock and eventually gives birth to a healthy son of her own.

Johnny Nolan is Francie's father. He is a second generation immigrant from Ireland. He has a protective mother and had three brothers, all of whom died young. Johnny marries Katie Rommely at nineteen. He is charismatic, a loving husband and father, loved dearly by his family but especially by Francie. He is, however, an alcoholic. When he does hold a job, Johnny works as a singing waiter. He has a beautiful voice, a talent that is greatly admired but that is largely wasted because of his reputation as an alcoholic. After Katie tells him that she is pregnant with their third child, he stops drinking and immediately falls into a deep depression that ends with his death from alcoholism-induced pneumonia. He is a dreamer, in sharp contrast to Katie, whose view of the world is realistic.

Cornelius "Neeley" Nolan is Francie's little brother. He is a year younger than Francie and is favored by his mother, Katie. Neeley is a normal child who is more widely accepted by the neighborhood children than Francie. He shows more emotion when his father dies than Francie, who reacts to the loss by becoming even more determined to get an education and rise above her mother's limited vision. Neeley refuses to follow the tradition of Nolan men and determines to never become an alcoholic. Like Francie, he feels that their childhood was pleasant despite their poverty.

Eva "Evy" Rommely- Flittman is Katie's youngest sister and Francie's other aunt, playing a role more minor than Sissy's. While considered throughout most of the novel to be in less dire circumstances than Katie, Evy struggles with her lazy husband Willie, a milk-wagon driver. When Willie suffers an injury, Evy drives the route instead and proves surprisingly good at it, treating the horses much more kindly than Willie does. At the end of the novel, he leaves her to travel as a one-man band and she carries on without a husband. When McShane gives Katie $1,000 as a wedding present, she passes $200 on to Evy - the value of Willie's life insurance policy. Unlike Sissy, Evy has had only one marriage and is not assumed to be promiscuous. She has three children, a girl (Blossom), and two boys (Paul Jones and Willie, Jr.).

Eliza Rommely is Francie's third aunt that is only mentioned once. She became a nun because of her mother's love of the catholic church. Francie only met her once and Eliza was the reason Francie didn't want to become a nun for her facial hair.

Thomas and Mary Rommely are the parents of Sissy, Eliza, Evy, and Katie; they emigrate to America from Austria just before Sissy is born. While Thomas hates America, enjoys tormenting Mary, and forbids the speaking of English at home, Mary patiently endures her hardships and serves as a moral/practical guide for her daughters. Mary cannot read or write English, but she encourages Katie to ensure that her children learn the language, and also to begin saving money so she can buy land someday. The Rommelys' second oldest daughter, Eliza, is mentioned only briefly; she becomes a nun and joins a convent.

Flossie Gaddis is one of the Nolans' neighbors, a single woman who scares men away as she constantly looks for new relationships. She keeps her right arm covered at all times to hide scars from a childhood accident with a tub of scalding water. She has a brother, Henny, who is dying of tuberculosis.

Lee Rhynor is Francie's first love, a soldier on leave who tries to manipulate Francie into sleeping with him after he wins over her heart. When Francie refuses, he goes back to his fiancee.

Ben Blake is a boy Francie befriends during her first summer of college classes. Ben is driven and determined. While he is the object of Francie's affection at first, she feels differently after falling in love with Lee. However, at the end of the novel, Francie goes to college with a promise ring from Ben and hope of a future with him.

Themes[edit]

Although the book addresses many different issues—poverty, alcoholism, lying, etc.--its main theme is the need for tenacity: the determination to rise above difficult circumstances. Although there are naturalistic elements in the book, it is not fundamentally naturalistic. The Nolans are financially restricted by poverty yet find ways to enjoy life and satisfy their needs and wants. For example, Francie can become intoxicated just by looking at flowers. Like the Tree of Heaven, Brooklyn's inhabitants fight for the sun and air necessary to their survival.

Idealism and pragmatism are weighed and both found necessary to survival in Brooklyn. Johnny lies about his family's address in order to enable Francie to attend a better school, presenting Francie with opportunities that might not have been available to her otherwise. Sissy helps Johnny recover from alcoholic withdrawals by appealing to his libido, helping Katie and Johnny to stay together despite Johnny's disease. Katie explains love and sexuality to Francie from two somewhat clashing points of view: as a mother and as a woman. The book revises traditional notions of right and wrong and suggests pointedly that extreme poverty changes the criteria on which such notions, and those who embrace them, should be judged.

Gender roles are more fluid in A Tree than in previous novels about young people. Katie's hands grow rough as she performs physical labor while Johnny's hands remain smooth and he wears expensive clothing. Francie doesn't fully begin to realize her own femininity until she can prove useful to her mother in childbirth. As Francie discovers her desire for companionship, she begins to understand the injustices women are often forced to endure when pregnant out of wedlock.

Other issues the book addresses include:

  • Man vs. his environment
  • Education
  • Coming of age/loss of innocence
  • Family
  • Exploitation
  • Love
  • Poverty
  • The American Dream

Adaptations[edit]

Pop culture references[edit]

  • A Hare Grows in Manhattan is a 1947 Merrie Melodies cartoon. At the end, Bugs Bunny shows the book to a pack of menacing dogs and they turn away from him and run to Brooklyn, presumably to make use of the tree.
  • The 1947 Warner Bros. Looney Tunes animated short film Scent-imental Over You featuring Pepé Le Pew shows multiple dogs looking through a bookstore window displaying A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
  • The thirteenth episode of season 2 of Batman (TV series), featuring the villain Egghead, is titled "An Egg Grows in Gotham".
  • The third episode in season 4 of Daria is named "A Tree Grows In Lawndale".
  • The 22nd episode of the first season of Ugly Betty is named "A Tree Grows in Guadalajara".
  • A Super Grover segment in Sesame Street #4224 takes place "where two trees grow in Brooklyn."
  • This is the favorite book of the character Katerina in the short story Lermontov, by Amanda Michalopoulou.
  • Jay-Z makes references to the title of the book in "Some How, Some Way" (from The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse) and "Interlude" (from The Black Album).
  • The Lifetime album Jersey's Best Dancers includes a song entitled "Francie Nolan".
  • Rapper Talib Kweli refers to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in Blackstar's track Respiration.
  • In an episode of I Love Lucy, Lucy schemes to get her husband, Ricky, into a play she wrote called "A Tree Grows in Havana", referring to Ricky's homeland of Cuba.
  • In "Why We Fight", the ninth episode of the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, Frank Perconte is seen reading the book while on guard duty in Germany during World War II.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]